“But St George is the patron saint of the English!” you must be exclaiming, possibly with indignation.And of course that’s correct,except that St Edmund was also our patron saint, well before St George was.
The night before King Richard the Lionheart won the battle of Lydda in 1199 during the Crusades he had prayed at the tomb of St George so, after his victory, he adopted George as his own personal patron saint. Before long, English soldiers were wearing the cross of St George into battle and by 1348 he was officially the patron saint of England.
But before Richard I’s adoption of St George, Edmund had been the saint that the English most revered and looked to as a brave and virtuous example. In the ninth century, Edmund had been king of East Anglia, where he is known to have spent time in Bures, Attleborough and Thetford, among other places. He courageously led his Anglo Saxon troops against marauding Vikings who were intent on occupying the area and who tried to make him renounce his Christian faith. When he refused to do so, they fired arrows at him and cut his head off. Legend says that a wolf guarded his head until his followers found it, whereupon it miraculously sprang back onto his body.
Edmund’s remains were taken to the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk where they attracted pilgrims for many years until the dissolution of the monasteries during Henry VIII’s reign. It is believed that his bones arrived by a circuitous route at the chapel in Arundel castle where they remain to this day.
In the 21st century there have been two unsuccessful campaigns to reinstate Edmund as the English patron saint, to adopt his flag of the white dragon on a red background and to celebrate his day of 20th November as a national holiday. (One of the campaigns was led by a brewing company in Bury St Edmunds – presumably hoping for the title “official brewers to the patron saint”.) After all, his supporters argue, Edmund was our patron saint before George was, and Edmund was an Englishman who fought for the English against an army of invaders before finally being martyred on English soil. Surely he has more right to be an English icon than St George, a Roman soldier who never set foot in England?
As a matter of fact, though, not many countries have a patron saint who came from that country: patron saints are supposedly chosen for the noble qualities they display and not necessarily because they are a local hero. But George is a pretty common old saint in a way that Edmund is not: his day is celebrated in at least 20 other countries, areas and organisations including Catalonia, Moldova, Canada and Lithuania to name a few, not to mention his patronage of archers, soldiers, farmers, lepers, scouts and syphilis sufferers.
At least if we decided to re-adopt Edmund as our patron saint we could claim that he would just be special to the English. And a bank holiday on 20th November would brighten up a gloomy time of year…..